NFL Nation: 2012 AFC Championship Game Rapid Reaction


FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some early thoughts on the New England Patriots' 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.

What it means: The Patriots advance to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis for the first time since the end of the 2007 season. This also is the fifth Super Bowl appearance under coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. The pair are 3-1 in the first four Super Bowls. New England won its NFL-high 10 games in a row and, including playoffs, and improved to 9-1 at Gillette Stadium.

Defense answers call: New England's much-maligned defense stepped up when it mattered most. The Patriots got an interception and a turnover on downs in two fourth-quarter drives that sealed the game. The Patriots also got a lot of luck with Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard field goal that would have tied the game. New England was ranked 31st in total defense but has stepped up in the playoffs to help lead the team to the Super Bowl.

Not sharp: Running back Danny Woodhead's fumble on a third-quarter kickoff return was big and cost New England three points. But the Patriots overall were not sharp and blew some opportunities. Brady missed several throws he usually makes, and the defense had some miscommunications. New England also made a questionable call with seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Up three, the Patriots tried to take a shot and throw it deep. It was picked off by Baltimore corner Jimmy Smith. Fortunately, the Patriots survived through sloppy play.

Law Firm shines: New England's running game has gone with the hot hand all season. This time it happened to be tailback BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He set the tone with a great first half and finished with 68 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. Green-Ellis was the kind of punishing rusher who played well against Baltimore's stout defense.

Red zone woes: New England rarely struggled in the red zone this season. But Baltimore did a great job defensively of forcing field goals instead of touchdowns. The Patriots had three field goals and one touchdown in their first four trips to the red zone. That kept the score close throughout the game.

What’s next: The Patriots have two weeks to prepare for the Super Bowl. They will face the winner of the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers. Both will be tough matchups. New England will spend a week in Foxborough before taking their show on the road for Super Bowl week in Indianapolis.

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Thoughts on today's AFC Championship Game between the Ravens and Patriots:

What it means: The Ravens lost in the AFC Championship Game for the second time in four seasons, but few predicted in this manner. After a last-minute rally, Billy Cundiff missed wide left on a 32-yard field goal. A Pro Bowl kicker last season, this was his 10th miss on the road this year. This also followed a game-winning drop in the end zone by wide receiver Lee Evans two plays earlier. This is a painful loss because the window of opportunity is starting to close for aging defensive stars Ray Lewis and Ed Reed.

Flacco flinches: Joe Flacco was outplaying Tom Brady for 3 1/2 quarters until he made a poor pass over the middle that resulted in an interception. Getting the ball back after a Brady interception, Flacco led the Ravens to the New England 33-yard line. On fourth-and-6 with under three minutes left, Flacco had to throw the ball away after Vince Wilfork ran over center Matt Birk and grabbed ahold of the quarterback. Ravens coach John Harbaugh will get second-guessed for not going for the game-tying 50-yard field goal.

Can't make goal-line stand: With the Ravens holding a four-point lead (20-16) early in the fourth quarter, the defense stopped the Patriots at the goal line on second and third down. But Brady leapt over the top on fourth-and-goal as Lewis and Jameel McClain were late to hit him.

Pollard continues to hurt Patriots: When New England tight end Rob Gronkowski injured his ankle late in the third quarter, it wasn't a surprise that Ravens safety Bernard Pollard made the tackle. Pollard has a history of hurting the Patriots, from Brady's ACL injury in the 2008 season opener to Wes Welker's knee injury in the 2009 regular-season finale. Gronkowski returned in the fourth quarter, though.

Pollard hurting Patriots, Part 2: One play after Flacco's fourth-quarter interception, Pollard deflected Brady's deep pass to the end zone. It went into the hands of rookie Jimmy Smith, who ran it to the Ravens' 38-yard line. It was the Ravens' third forced turnover of the game.

Costly penalty early: Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is known for being an undisciplined player and he showed why in the second quarter. He ripped off the helmet of BenJarvus Green-Ellis in the red zone, which became a costly penalty. On the next play, Green-Ellis scored on a 7-yard run. That put the Patriots up 10-3.

What's next: The Ravens head into an offseason where they have issues to address on offense. Running back Ray Rice and left guard Ben Grubbs are free agents, and Flacco is looking for a contract extension.

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